We’ve Got Bruce! At Least Until July … How Ridley Scott Conquered Even Me

We’ve Got Bruce! At Least Until July

Bette Midler calls him “the first man to put something in my mouth that actually made us both money” (and if that’s not the quote of the year, then I don’t know one when I hear one). She is talking, of course, about Bruce Vilanch, the flamboyant, campy and giddily eccentric walking cartoon whose one-liners have made Bette, Barbra, Whoopi and Cher what they are today. In addition to writing the celebrity patter for the last 12 Academy Awards telecasts as well as the Tony, Grammy and Emmy awards shows, he has also written for the Osmonds in Mormon country and Dollywood in Tennessee, and taken over the seat vacated by the late Paul Lynde on Hollywood Squares . Now he tells all in a behind-the-scenes, warts-included tour of show business called Bruce Vilanch: Almost Famous , his frank and limp-wristedly hilarious new comedy act at the Westbeth Theatre Center on Bank Street. You can hear the skeletons rattle all the way out to the Hills of Beverly as he fogs up the Air of Bel.

The horny, hirsute star of the recent documentary film Get Bruce! and a voracious fly in the celebrity ointment, Mr. Vilanch has always been a ham, and he dresses for the part. Every day is Halloween, and you would not be out of place if you showed up at Almost Famous in costume. Many do, but nobody upstages the outrageous and openly gay star. With hair like Belle Watling’s old shag carpet, Sally Jesse pink eyeglasses and a Mae West bustline, he’s a hot cross between Belle Barth and King Lear. (Queen Lear at last!) Although this living Muppet is finally out of Jim Henson’s closet at last, nobody’s hand is wedged in Mr. Vilanch’s drawers. (Feh!) He thinks up all this stuff himself, and although he can get too downright raunchy for some patrician tastes, nobody leaves poker-faced.

On the night I saw the show, his straight-laced relatives from Paterson, N.J., looking like escapees from a Hadassah meeting on the Garden State Parkway, were crowded into saloon tables alongside transsexuals with bad tummy tucks, Chelsea boys with shaved heads, Wall Street suits sipping cosmopolitans and Bette Midler herself. Nobody looked bored, and nine times out of 10, they all slapped their thighs in unison, like extras in a Maria Montez movie. Bruce’s humor has that kind of liberating effect on people. Behind the barbed-wire jokes, the Godzilla belly, the Yosemite Sam beard and the size-20 T-shirts, Mr. Vilanch communicates the universal need to be hugged. It translates into massive bonding between performer and spectator, regardless of age, gender, race or sexual persuasion. One size fits all.

In an act he describes as “the only show in New York that you didn’t do in high school,” he sings a few songs, recreates the bawdy vaudeville gags of Sophie Tucker, does “the worst Judy Garland impression ever by a non-family member,” and offers off the top of his fuzzy head his own personal spin on everything from the History Channel (“Hitler, Hitler, all the time”) to Hollywood (“I love Los Angeles-if you can’t be a star, at least you can be a star witness”). In Act 2, he plows into questions from the audience like a bull gone berserk. Get your pencils ready. He’ll answer anything, leaving any number of reputations gored.

Except for one tasteless Tallulah Bankhead anecdote, most of it is funny and on target. My favorite part of the show is his reminiscences of his days as a rebel columnist for The Chicago Tribune and the number of times he tried to insert the word “smegma” into his copy without getting fired. Making willing fans scream and squirm is nothing new. He’s been doing it for years. But there’s also a serious side to Bruce Vilanch, a humanitarian who has contributed countless hours writing for AIDS benefits from coast to coast. He may weigh in at 250 pounds, but he proves even big, crazy guys can cry-though they may want a root beer float for every tear.

Written and conceived by the comic himself, and directed by Scott Wittman, with cabaret regular Dick Gallagher at the piano, Almost Famous is time well spent with a reckless, out-front former misfit who has found his niche at last. Only the title lacks truth. Almost Famous has been extended into New York’s annual Festival of Humidity until July 1, and from the applause, I’d say Mr. Vilanch is famous already.

How Ridley Scott Conquered Even Me

So many people have asked me why I haven’t written about Gladiator that I decided I’d better catch up. Swords and chariots and brave Christians thrown to hungry tigers in the public arenas of Rome used to guarantee big bucks at the box office. Dormant for four decades, the lost movie genre that spawned Quo Vadis , Ben-Hur and Spartacus is doing it again. People are seeing Ridley Scott’s movie two and three times. Russell Crowe has indeed shed the 38 pounds he gained for last year’s best-kept secret, The Insider , to emerge triumphant as the beefy, rugged, gentle-hearted general sold into slavery to amuse the bloodthirsty Roman mobs as a gladiator in the center ring of the Colosseum. Add digital effects to achieve battle scenes as gory as the first 15 minutes of Saving Private Ryan , and you have a juggernaut with a spiritual theme that sends them out cheering.

After glory on the battlefields in 180 A.D., Mr. Crowe’s unstoppable General Maximus is ready for a long rest on the farm, but the dying emperor Marcus Aurelius (Richard Harris) chooses him to save the empire from corruption over his creepy, jealous and ambitious son Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix), cutting him off in mid-villainy. Commodus murders his father, then turns to Maximus: burning his crops, destroying his wife and son and sentencing him to death. The grief-stricken Maximus escapes but before he can rid the empire of its psychotic new ruler, he finds himself captured and sold to a slave trader (Oliver Reed, in his final screen role) who turns him into a gladiator, a buff, go-get-‘em performer in chains whose show-biz specialty act was wholesale slaughter for violent public sport.

Maximus knows it’s only a matter of time before he makes it to the Roman Colosseum. When he does, there is hell to pay-for the venomous Commodus, his scheming vixen sister (Connie Nielsen, from the disastrous Mission to Mars ), the wicked Roman senators and Maximus’ fellow gladiators, many of whom die trying to set him free. As a man of principle reduced to the status of an animal, Mr. Crowe is a teddy bear with brute force, but never less than human. When he realizes the only way to conquer Rome is through the hearts and minds of its own people, the screams of the crowd are equaled only by those of the audience.

Gladiator rises above the ho-hum predictability of most big, dumb action pictures because it takes the time to investigate the moral complexities of its characters. It’s a gigantic, staggering film, beautifully shot and powerfully told with all of the passion and pageantry the subject demands, but despite its size and spectacle, the essential elements of character and plot are not dissipated. Mr. Crowe takes us with him on an emotional journey; rising from the carnage of the arena, he’s a Christ figure whose love and integrity overwhelm even the most fearful tyrant in the eyes of the common man. As both the battering ram who emerges a champion, and a man of peace and faith who emerges from the filth and fire with the goodness of his heart undiminished, Mr. Crowe is the soul of the film. Mr. Phoenix provides the boo-hiss factor, but even he finds some vulnerability that is oddly mercurial; he’s more of a spoiled brat than a monster, more tragic than terrifying.

After Alien and Blade Runner , we know Ridley Scott is a director to whom stunts and slam-bam action sequences come naturally, but the great thing about what he does with Gladiator is the gripping showing of people of a primitive time communicating with each other, putting their humanity to the test and finding their hearts. This is the element in Gladiator that keeps audiences returning for more and makes a timeless story worth telling again for a brand-new generation.